Racetrack attire is a minefield, and you don’t have to attend the races to be aware that some appalling fashion choices are made each year by young ladies who have misread the brief and gone with ‘nightclub sexy’ instead of ‘wedding elegance.’
It’s an easy enough mistake to make and Your Girl Reporter’s only observation would be that if you’re going to participate in the dated ritual of playing clothes horse for a day, start with the footwear.
A well shod filly should be able to handle the wobbling walk from bar to bookie and back again in the softest conditions. The most elegant outfit will be let down by a staggering gait.
And after the shoes, the hat. Mine is a jiggling mess of dyed chicken feathers which most recently bobbed and nodded its way through the crowds at the Doomben track in Brisbane, Australia when Black Caviar enjoyed one of her many winning outings some years ago.
You will note that I am not a regular nor avid racegoer. Nevertheless, I keep the hat handy on the off-chance I get to Flemington one day for the Melbourne Cup or out to the Birdsville track. I’d like to wear it to the Kentucky Derby too, but that outing seems less likely at the moment.
The first time I wore it was at Royal Ascot, where I was a guest of Rupert Murdoch’s Sky Television. I had been invited to Sky’s box in the Royal Enclosure in my capacity as Editor of a magazine called Hotel.
It was one of the best gigs I ever had as a journalist – a trade magazine for the “independent hotelier with 10 bedrooms or more.” A happy consequence was that my stories were generally written with Sybil Fawlty’s words in mind, “Basil, 22 rooms is the limit!”
An even happier consequence was that I got to swank around at The Ivy – London’s long-standing celebrity hangout of choice – and stay in outrageously good hotels, probing the murky depths of in-house versus contracted laundry services. It was heavy stuff.
So when the invitation landed, a Day at the Races seemed a welcome diversion and I duly went off to purchase The Hat.
I started in Debenhams, the British equivalent of David Jones, where the hats were expensive and uniformly too big. Don’t you have any other sizes?
“In fect, Modom, many leddies find a little draught excluder achieves a perfect fit.”
Instead I picked up a natty black number covered in dancing dyed chook feathers for a fraction of the price – and it fitted me too – from C&A (or Coats and ‘Ats, as my former mother-in-law (mother-out-law?) called it.
I was pretty broke at the time so a new frock was out of the question. I set off feeling more than a little like the poor governess being allowed to mingle with the guests for half an hour before retiring to the nursery.
Still, I tottered off to the station, clutching my wobbly hat – not yet brave enough to put it on – by this time a bundle of nerves that I can only attribute to being a little Aussie battler braving one of the bastions of the English Upper Crust.
Pluck me a cabbage and call me Eliza.
The ticket seller was thrilled to hear I was off to Ascot, and asked me to come back and buy him a drink if I backed a winner.
Aaaargh! I’d been so wrapped up in inadequate dresses and draught excluder and the sudden terrors at just what the Sky Television box at Royal Ascot might actually entail that I’d completely forgotten the main point of the day.
I had about £15 on me. And I already felt like a dormouse. A dormouse in an ostentatious hat. Oh God.
By the time the train pulled into Ascot I was shaking with fear. A nice little old lady gave me a tip for the first race and assured me I’d have a wonderful time.
She was right.
The short walk to the track was a joy in itself, with musicians playing all along the way and scalpers, or touts as they’re called over there, by the dozen offering grandstand tickets.
Ha, I thought, as my hat fluttered in the breeze, I’ve already got one – AND a box.
When I got there, it wasn’t at all what I had worked myself up to expect.
There was the Sky PR Graham, a lovely Scotsman in a beautiful morning suit, and 10 other women, all from various hotels of 10 bedrooms or more, plus a reporter from the Dastardly Competition, Hotel and Restaurant magazine.
You may judge from this that Sky was busy breaking into the hotel market at this time and was indeed one of our biggest advertisers.
It was the first time at Ascot for all of us and we were in a private box, crammed to the gills with Champagne and quality snackage – none of your party pies, thank you – with its own open balcony from which to view the races.
We did Queen waves at the Royal Carriage when it trundled past and sang bits from My Fair Lady to each other, before ducking out of the summer chill for some more Champagne.
My Hat, which by now had stopped feeling like a dead chicken on my head and had transformed itself into an essential part of my glamorous being, was unanimously voted Best in Box.
A winner at £35 and no draught excluder.
Stick that, Modom.
Placing our bets was a delight – an opportunity to squeal at particularly beautiful hats and admire just how good men can look when they dress up in fancy clothes.
I put £2 on Intikhab to win in the first race – my old lady tip and my only success of the day. No doubt spurred on by my inner Eliza screaming “Come on Intikhab!! Move your bloomin’ arse!” he carried housewife’s favourite Frankie Dettori to a thrilling eight-length victory.
That the day went so quickly is the only pity. Suddenly it was 5 o’clock and Cinderella had to go and pick up the kids. I put £5 for a place on The Editor and gave my slip to Graham. Came nowhere, for the record. All up, I was £8 down by the time I headed for home.
At the station a very drunk man came over and sat next to me. “I just had to come and tell you that I love your hat,” he said. “Did you win anything?”
He was £40 up and drunk as a lord. He begged me to come and live with him in Wandsworth and then said, “Oh no, what about your husband? I expect he’s a big bloke, is he?”
Enormous, I assured him, and a front row forward to boot. Not to be messed with.
“Oh rugby! I was a prop myself. Blackheath and England A’s.”
Hmmm. D’ya see what he did there?
The train arrived and he wished me a safe journey, before staggering off to another carriage.
Even getting chatted up by a drunk felt special at Ascot.
When I got home my lefty daughter berated me for enjoying Rupert Murdoch’s hospitality, however remotely.
To which I’m told I replied, “I’ll never dance with the Devil darling, but I’ll always drink his Champagne.”
These days I could add that I’m even prepared to marry one of his henchmen.
© Sally Baxter 2016
Originally published in 2012 as The Devil, Champagne and Black Caviar. Updated and hopefully improved since then.
Thanks to the miracle of Internet technology, here’s Intikhab, moving his bloomin’ arse at Royal Ascot. Excited Girl Reporter in wobbly hat not featured.
Want more Baxter? Try some further Adventures of a Girl Reporter here